The Plight of Localization in Video Games

Localization is a term that many JRPG fans are all too familiar with. Perhaps to the point of irritation. I count myself among the less intense fans of JRPGs, as the only series I actually follow actively is the Final Fantasy series. Among the more popular franchises are the Tales series, the Final Fantasy series, the Star Ocean series, and the Kingdom Hearts series. The more committed members of the fandoms are often critical of the English localizations of these games. And they rightly should be. Japanese is notorious for its very nuanced language and difficulty of translation to English, with its undertones to pronouns, non-distinguishing of present and future, and non-translatable words.

In the translation of various titles for English releases of these games, many meanings are inevitably lost. Some not so inevitably, such as in the infamous case of, “This guy are sick,” in Final Fantasy VII. When localizing, translators and directors both try their hardest to transfer as much of the meanings in the original Japanese version to the English version as possible. Many gamers who have played the original version and then the English version often complain about discrepancies. For example, in Final Fantasy X, Yuna’s final words to Tidus before he disappears are “I love you,” in the English version. However, in the Japanese version, she says, “Thank you.” These two sentiments are very different, and while it is definitely a fact that there are romantic feelings between the characters in the game anyway, what does this mean? Does this imply that there is a slightly, if not very, different relationship in the original story? My point here is that localization makes for a complicated case when trying to translate not only the words but also the story itself.

Another example is Final Fantasy VI, where the character Setzer says, “The Empire’s made me a rich man.” I haven’t played the game, and I’m paraphrasing from the article by Kotaku (linked here). Apparently, this was a mistranslation, evidenced in the improved GBA port, as the idiom translated actually meant the complete opposite in context: “The Empire’s been bad for business.” As the name of the article suggests, this one line changes the character’s motivations and place in the story completely.

Other difficulties lie in the voice acting. Japanese has a pitch accent, meaning that it does not inflect the pronunciation of words to imply tone, sarcasm, etc. At least, not the way English does. While a person speaking in English who is speaking fast, harshly, and loudly is easily identified as angry, this may not be the case in Japanese. This conflict between the two languages creates an interesting predicament: how are English voice actors supposed to play their characters correctly? While voice actors are told what a character is like and the character’s feelings about certain things in the story, it remains a daunting task to effectively reproduce the same effect as in the original Japanese version.

This was a little bit of a shorter piece, but I was really looking to write one about foreign language in relation to localization. Hope you found this interesting, and that you share this with your friends! Feel free to leave some comments as well!